Flight sets sight on VAFB environment

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- One base organization is the liaison between Vandenberg and nature. The Environmental Flight, part of the 30th Civil Engineer Squadron, is the base environment's guardian, sentry, warden and engineer and has at least some role in nearly every mission and acquisition at Vandenberg.

The recycled wood-chip furniture and a bag on the counter of organic apples for the taking possibly reflect the environmental mindset of the workers in this flight. The room is dark and overhead lights are off, as if to save electricity. Only the cubicles where people are at work have any lights on.

More than 50 people work in the Environmental flight, and their jobs are as diverse as the missions they accomplish.

"We do so many things across the base with all the organizations and it's all exciting," said Bea Kephart, flight chief for the 30th CES Environmental flight. Her team of seven offices is at the forefront of Vandenberg's role as steward of the 99,000 acres of scrubland, coast and military infrastructure.

The compliance office makes sure the base meets standards set by local, state and national law by checking drinking water quality, asbestos practices and generator engine emissions.

It was after taking inventory of all the emergency backup generator engines on Vandenberg, Pillar Point and remote facilities, the compliance office and environmental planning office saw some generators needed to be replaced. Since they knew the law would be cracking down on emissions, they took a proactive approach, Mrs. Kephart said.

"The engine had to be replaced anyways, so instead of replacing with one that would be compliant now, and was going to have to be retrofitted or changed in two years, we replaced it with one that was going to be compliant in 2010," Mrs. Kephart said.

Vandenberg stores, handles and processes enough highly toxic liquid propellants for space boosters to fill a six-lane Olympic sized swimming pool. The pollution prevention office monitors and manages hazardous materials on base, contributing to decades of an major incident-free record.

The Environmental Flight protects and conserves more than the Air Force infrastructure; the cultural and natural resources offices, conservation office and environmental restoration office work to conserve the base's 15 endangered species and 2,500 archeological sites.

Among the modern sites are Space Launch Complex 10, which is part of the National Park Service, and the former U. S. Coast Guard Rescue Station at Point Arguello, more commonly referred to as the "Boathouse."

They also conserve remnants of sites established by the Army during its establishment here from the early 1940's until 1957 when the property turned over to the Air Force.

Native Americans societies existed here as long as 9,000 years ago, Mrs. Kephart said. Cultural resources archaeologists have inventoried, analyzed, and preserved an awesome array of prehistoric archaeological sites and Native American cultural resources while working with museums to educate the public, she said.

While combing the beaches near Space Launch Complex 2 in January, archaeologists made a different kind of discovery.

"We found a nearly complete fossil dolphin under a receding dune," said Beth McWaters-Bjorkman, Native American liaison and archaeologist with the Environmental Flight.

The resin model sits on a chair in her cubicle. From tip to tail, the dolphin skeleton is the length of a Labrador retriever.

"It's about 12 million years old," Mrs. McWaters-Bjorkman said. "What's really exciting is that it's probably a new species."

The discovery of an ancient species at Vandenberg may bear great interest to the paleontology community. But the animal that puts the Environmental Flight into the public eye is one that many efforts are made to keep it off the extinct species list: a small shorebird with a big conservational interest.

"The western snowy plover is a success story, said Mrs. Kephart. "We have the largest breeding population in California."

"It takes a while for a species to get on the endangered species list, and takes a long time to get off the list," she said.

Even after animals drop off the list, the Flight will keep on protecting their habitat and Vandenberg's natural environment. It's what being the steward of nature is all about.